Time to worry.

I know most of you don’t want to read this, and it’s fairly long, so I’m going to put this behind a cut. The subject: the problem of terror has, in the past few weeks, gotten qualitatively worse in a way that it hasn’t since 9/11.

  1. The siege and massacre of the school in Beslan, and the related operations (two plane bombings and a subway bombing) within the past week and a half. There are several qualitatively important features here. First, the school siege operation was done apparently under local command, without any command or support from a broader organization. Smaller groups are going for bigger targets, and this decentralization poses a fundamentally different problem for dealing with it. Second, the hostage takers apparently made no demands of negotiators. This is really bad; when people take over a thousand hostages, mostly women and children, and have no demands, the only reason they’re there is to kill people. The group apparently didn’t have an agenda beyond destruction. Similarly, in the plane and subway bombings there were no demands made nor manifestos published. Third, the synchronization of operations was quite professional; attribute this to the now well-cemented ties between al Qaeda and the Chechens.

    The major consequence of this is the enormous scale of escalation. These (combined with point 2, below) represent a systematic mass of operations by affiliated organizations across a longer distance scale. The number of casualties from these operations alone is already over 500, with several hundred still missing and presumed dead not counted in that total. Another thing of note is that some of the previous boundaries of operations have been crossed; like in many Hamas operations, this intentionally and primarily targeted women and children, and the operation has produced a noticeable lack of condemnation within the Islamist community. This is apparently accepted as a new tactic.

    Given the ease with which it was done, given that it was done entirely with local resources (no international help needed), and given its extraordinary impact, I can only assume that we are going to see many more things like this, and worse. The first use of nonconventional weapons by terrorists may well be aimed at a school.

  2. The bus bombing in Israel. This doesn’t seem nearly as large as the previous point, but it’s no less significant for another reason, especially taken along with the recent assassination of several prominent Palestinian officials and security people by “assailants unknown.” (A detail on that – after various drive-by shootings and so on, people walked into the hospitals where the survivors were and shot them in their beds. This wasn’t an Israeli job; the killers were Palestinian)

    The issue is this: Arafat is getting older and more out of control of the situation. Hamas has more or less consolidated its power in the West Bank. Sharon is planning a pullout from Gaza, and since there was no clear power structure there, it’s very open. And now, the Hezbollah has started an open takeover and campaign of killing Arafat’s people and running the place. Hezbollah is based out of Lebanon, gets its command and operational support from Damascus, and its ultimate command and material support from Tehran. This takeover, and the bus bombing, were commanded directly from there. Iran (and the faction of the ayatollahs in particular) has decided to make its move; they’re trying to take over Gaza. This gives them a pincer position around Israel (the other side being in Lebanon); sea ports; and a sophisticated tunnel complex leading from Egypt that shuttles in military hardware. (Israeli forces uncovered and destroyed a major munitions dump in a tunnel a few days ago; there was a tunnel complex being built from there towards the Israeli town of Kfar Darom. I am somewhat afraid to think of what they were planning that required that much infrastructure)

  3. And the trouble in Iraq. Let’s be blunt: We fought to a draw at Najaf. al-Sadr’s forces left the city with all of their weapons. While this was going on, we lost several other cities, especially in the west; US forces have pulled out of more and more areas, with talk about working with locals to maintain order, but really – when all is said and done – because we can’t hold them without an enormous battle, and we can’t fight a battle of that sort in a city without razing it to the ground. Iraq is rapidly slipping out of control, and the number of suicide bombings in the past few weeks (two in the past week in Iraq that I can remember, but I may be forgetting some) is testament to that. Afghanistan is not much better, and our forces took significant casualties in the past week.

    And one of the strangest consequences of this situation in Iraq is that it has allowed Sunnis and Shi’ites to start to work together (against the Americans) in a way they never have before. While this is enough of a problem in Iraq, it appears to have had effects quite beyond this – Iran and the Hezbollah (both Shi’ite) have started to work far more closely with al Qaeda, Hamas, and the various Chechen groups. (All Sunni)

  4. Pakistan continues its gradual fall to the militant forces. The west of the country, where the “refugees” (I use the term loosely to describe very heavily armed people) from Afghanistan have set up shot, has long been outside even the nominal control of the Pakistani government; Sharif has survived a huge number of assassination attempts, but I wouldn’t sell him any life insurance right now. If and when they fall, don’t forget that they have the bomb. Iran has also put its bomb program into high gear; they should be ready for a test blast no later than mid-year at this rate. They’ve also recently been bragging about the new guidance systems for the Shihab-3 missile which put all of the Middle East firmly in their range.

So in the past few weeks, all of the loosely amalgamated forces seem to have finally solidified themselves into a coherent body. The main command centers are: al Qaeda operating out of Pakistan, the Chechen etc forces operating out of Chechnya and environs, and a centralized command structure in Iran. There is the persistent roiling of forces in Egypt which suggests that that country may soon switch over. In recent weeks, they’ve solidified their control over substantial portions of Iraq and Gaza. Their weapons programs are advancing rapidly, and perhaps more importantly, the small independent groups over which they nonetheless can effect substantial control (i.e., they say “do something big on such and such a day,” give a bit more, and things will happen with or without central command) have gotten much more powerful.

The West Bank is still a holdout because Arafat is jealous of his power, and this makes me wonder if he doesn’t have more to fear from Arabs than from Israelis now. Hamas could be convinced to join this, especially if offered an alliance with forces in Gaza.

Once they establish forces there, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more events like this school attack. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sudden escalation in the types of force used, including the use of non-conventional weapons.

I am beginning to suspect that this qualitative change will also require a qualitative change in our approach to the problem. Terrorism has suddenly stopped being an amorphoous force; it’s getting a clearer head and organization, and that can be dealt with by traditional military means – but at a serious cost. The sort of war that would be involved now is not a minor, localized thing like Iraq; it would take a systematic alliance with Russia at least and probably several other countries to drive the Islamists out of their redoubts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to take Iran from the ayatollahs, and in general to drive these forces, all of their adherents and commanders, into the sea. It is a war on a scale not seen in fifty years.

A first objection to this is: the people of Iran are not at fault, we should not attack them. I’m very sympathetic to this, and with Iran in particular I believe that ultimately a genuine peace is possible, and a mutually very beneficial state of affairs can prevail. But no matter who the people are, if the government is insisting on a war and pressing it through military means, the choice may not be ours. It takes only one side to start a war, and in the past few weeks a decisive first shot has been taken.

A second objection is: Europe is against it. Our enemies are subtle; they understand that Europe is unwilling to fight in any war that they can avoid, and have therefore taken extraordinary pains to avoid any action which might rouse Europe to action. Even the bombings in Madrid were timed to not affect the rest of the area much; they could easily be read by a pusillanimous populace as “this is why we should get out of Iraq and mind our own business!” Not for them attacks without demands; even the Islamists were horrified at the kidnapping of French journalists with demands about France’s new head-scarves law, because they knew that their deaths could move Europe into the American camp. No, there’s nothing to wait for from Europe; they don’t yet know what they have to lose, and they haven’t yet understood that a pro-Arab policy will not cause the Islamists to love them, only to save them for later.

Beslan is not that far from us; three hundred (soon to be five hundred, or more) dead women and children could have just as easily been in Iraq, or in Israel. Only distance kept it from being in Mountain View or in New York; and distance will not keep it away forever.

We have an enemy now that is far more organized and unified than any we have faced before; we cannot defeat them cheaply, but we have no other choice.

In the clouds over Beslan I see the smoke of Fort Sumter.

Published in: on September 4, 2004 at 14:28  Comments (9)  
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  1. Rather than worry, I’d like to do somthing productive. Any suggestions?

  2. Very astute. What material have you been reviewing?
    You’re conclusion is surprising, given your previous political positions. In your opinion, what strategy should the US employ? What is the way ahead?

  3. Sorry about the delay in responding; I’ve been busy at work and wanted to give this a proper answer. And as far as the material I’ve been reviewing, just news reports – those of us outside Washington get to roll our own intelligence reports. 🙂
    And I don’t see the conflict between my conclusion and my previous positions; I continue to think that Afghanistan was overall a good idea, Iraq a fantastically bad one, and that had it not been for a wide range of deeply ill-conceived policies nobody would be vaguely considering any of this.
    That said, I still think there are troubles, but on sober reflection I should adjust those predictions. The people in Iran, whatever they may be, are not stupid, and they know that getting involved in this game directly risks war with America (at least) and offers few rewards. If I were sitting in Tehran right now… I would consolidate power in Gaza, making sure all the real control goes into Hezbollah hands while completely latching down control over that group – increasing the Iranian presence in Damascus, for one thing. Simultaneously I’d wait for and encourage better ties between al Qaeda and Hamas. Once those are getting better, at some arranged time it may be best to let Arafat bite it – most simply by letting a Palestinian assassin get him. (The Israelis probably wouldn’t take the bait, but I’d be pretty confident that I could find a sucker in the West Bank) The Israelis would get blamed no matter what, and this should be enough to allow al Qaeda to finish its takeover of Hamas, for Hezbollah to consolidate power, and depending on how things go to possibly make substantial political, military, or even territorial victories in the area. All without having to risk direct intervention; just a steady supply of personnel, weapons and skills.
    In Iraq, in the meantime, it seems like little direct intervention is needed, except to maintain the status quo there. The Iranian ayatollahs are probably not thrilled with the idea of al-Sistani getting too powerful, but having a relative moderate on hand could be very useful if things are verging on getting out of hand.
    So Iran won’t act directly – it’ll rattle its sabers (as it did recently with the Shihab-3 guidance systems), subtly fund various agencies, and let its newfound Sunni “allies” (I use the term loosely) stick their necks out. Which means that there’s probably not going to be any invasion of Iran, which is good for all of our sakes. But they will get the bomb, probably by summer. Which realizes one of their key goals of becoming a power in the region and immune to US attack. (We’ve turned the bomb into far too valuable a thing with our public example of Iraq vs North Korea; everyone now seems to understand that it’s a ticket to a whole different level of negotiation with the US)
    The other relatively good news is that Beslan seems to have provoked a mildly antipathic reaction even in the Islamist world. Not strongly so, granted, but it means that we won’t have hordes of people rushing to replicate it. So al Qaeda can continue around its current themes of (1) keeping trouble going in Iraq, (2) working to unite with Sunni terror groups like Hamas and the various Chechen forces, and (3) causing trouble in more remote outposts esp. in SE Asia.
    This suggests that a more pianissimo approach may be valuable on the US side as well, since if we were to invade first they could still dissipate far too easily. (Until they do, they’re insufficiently committed to any position to make a good frontal assault possible) A few things may be useful. First, Iran is setting up a good position in Syria; recruiting agents in Damascus could be useful, and some systematic “accidents” happening to their people could be both lovely and hard for them to complain too loudly about. It won’t stop their nuclear program – I suspect nothing can at this point which wouldn’t be far worse – but it will do a lot to contain them.
    [Continued in the next comment]

  4. Second, al Qaeda has a good physical position in Pakistan which is hard for us to really hit without incidentally causing the country to collapse, which would be a bad thing. (Unless/until it gets to the point where it’s going to collapse anyway, in which case what the hell) But that position gives them few good access points to the rest of the world, and more importantly, few resources other than a position. Systematically going after their financials and infrastructure network (both by law enforcement means and by more direct means) could be very profitable at this point, and turn their holdout position into a small trap in which they can rot. Setting up a good presence of agents in Pakistani port areas (Karachi, pt. Muhammad, Hyderabad…) could intercept a lot of communication and do much use there.
    The other main open hole is the Islamic former Soviet republics. There we may have more leverage: our joint exercises etc. with several local governments have gotten us friends in a few places, and the Beslan incident may have gotten us more. If we work with the Russians to defuse the Chechen situation, we could get points there, but that’s harder than the rest.
    The last thing I can think of is the “weapons market” direction – hardware via Ukraine, mercenaries from Yugoslavia, etc are probably going to be a growing pain in the ass. Cleaning up their markets will solve much of it, but if we can put pressure on them (esp. with Russian help) we can do a lot to cut down on their business.
    So I suppose my basic thought is, if they want to play “quiet war,” we can play that game too, and we have a good chance to play on our success in Afghanistan into a stronger position across the board here. It won’t make things better in Iraq any time soon, but at the least that gives us a base of operations in case they start moving back in the not-so-quiet war direction. Our enemies are still a bit too split to be working together smoothly yet, and we can exploit this by fscking with their communication and infrastructure.
    Europe remains a total loss. 🙂

  5. Oh yes: I just realized I didn’t put a note down about the military option. In case all else fails, my first thoughts involved some combination of a pincer movement in the Chechnya area with the Russians, a quick charge through Syria to the sea, a pincer between present forces in Afghanistan and Marine reinforcements from the 5th fleet via Pakistan, and (at the absolute worst) a multi-front assault on Iran, depending on the precise nature of the threat on the eve of actual fighting.
    But those are the absolute last-ditch options; all of them are likely to buy us a hell of a lot of trouble in the long run, above all of the immediate casualties. The real signal I’m looking for is attempts at something like Beslan by any group beyond the Chechens; that could be a sign that this group, and its backing, may need to be dealt with swiftly and forcefully. Barring that, I think we can get a better long-term win with more subtle measures.

  6. Damn. That’s actually one of the hardest questions to answer at this point. There’s nothing on the lines of “join this political group” that’s really relevant to this. If you’re in the market for a career change, there’s always the option of going in a foreign service-related direction, or of steering your present work in a direction that has some influence over these things. Failing that, at the very least make sure you’re up on what’s going on and you engage people in discussion about this; the more good heads are thinking about it, the higher the probability that someone will come up with a good idea.

  7. Not entirely related, but you should check out this post, I think you’d find it interesting.

  8. Interesting. He summarized things well.

  9. is a good friend of mine who comes down for KallistiCon every year. He was at my wedding too, though I’m not sure if you’ve gotten much of a chance to talk. I think you two would really enjoy talking, and might like each other’s ljs quite a bit.

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